A Tumultuous Ride Back to JFK’s Camelot with "Jackie"

Culture Watch
tags: Bruce Chadwick, JFK, theater reviews, Jackie, City Center Stage, Kennedys

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

City Center Stage II
131 W. 55th Street
New York, N.Y.

Thirty years ago, my wife and I attended a performance at the New York City Ballet. When intermission began, we stood up and noticed that everybody in the theater was staring at the front of the mezzanine. I looked up, too, and there, center stage, was Jackie Kennedy. She was talking to her escort as if the two of them were alone in the middle of a forest as everybody else gawked at them.

I just could not believe it. There she was, right in front of me -- the most famous woman in the world -- and absolutely ravishing in an elegant gold dress.

Jackie Kennedy (I refuse to call her Jackie O) is the subject of a wild new play by Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian Nobel literature prize winner. It is a rough and turbulent ride back through the Camelot years when Mrs. Kennedy was First Lady. In it, she recalls her past and goes after her old enemies, especially Marilyn Monroe, like a madwoman with a machine gun.

Jackie is an enjoyable but macabre tale. When it opens, Jackie arrives at an empty, abandoned indoor swimming pool, autumn leaves scattered on its vacant cement floor, carrying three large dummies that are the dead men in her past. Unable to lug them down the pool’s ladder, she grunts and heaves them over the side, then climbs down herself. She has her famous sunglasses on, a raincoat over one of her well known pink dresses and breathlessly greets the audience.

Then it is off to the races. In this ninety minute play, Jelinik tries, with much success, to get at the inner Jackie, who rocketed to fame when her husband, John F. Kennedy, became President in 1961 and then became a forlorn and much pitied figure when Kennedy was assassinated. The play takes Jackie back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. She tells the audience that at most points throughout her life, after she became so famous, she was “always there, but never there.” She was an icon, a photograph, a television show, but never the real mother of two married to a philandering husband. Jelinek really understands the lives and troubles of famous women and draws a nice portrait of Jackie. This is the unhappy inner woman clawing her way out of her own skin to explain her fury at some of the things  that happened to her, and to the Kennedy family, too (such as the public scorning of Ted Kennedy’s first wife Joan).

Here, Jackie does a fine job of explaining, very carefully, that she had become so well known that she could not have a normal life. After her husband’s murder, she and her family had to literally hide out in New York City or, if they did venture out, disguise themselves.

Tina Benko, as Jackie, tells her secret story but, again and again, goes back to the 1963 assassination of her husband and relives, six, seven, eight times, those harrowing moments. Gunshots continually reverberate through the theater. Kennedy had his head blown off and she scrambled on to the trunk of his limo to retrieve a piece of his brain and then slid back into the back seat to cradle his blood soaked head in her lap as he died. This part of the play is riveting, absolutely riveting, drama, as good as theater gets.

The talented Benko is even better when she trains her sights on all of the other women in JFK’s live, especially blond bombshell Marilyn Monroe. In this play, Jackie just excoriates Marilyn.

Jelinkek has written a fine play about the former First Lady, who died in 1994 at the age of 64, but she missed much, though. As an example, there is nothing in the play about Jackie’s very unpopular marriage to Ari Onassis, her post-White House life in New York, her children or all of the triumphs she shared with her husband when he was President. Jelinek should have brought more history into the play, too. As a White House insider, what was Jackie’s view of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, the Civil Rights marches of the early 1960s, the space race? There is none of that and it is a loss. She was not just a clothes horse, as the playwright suggests.

Jackie starts very slowly, and for ten or fifteen minutes seems awkwardly structured, and you need time to get used to the empty swimming pool, but after that the play gets a claw hold on you and Benko pulls you into the chaotic inner world of Jackie Kennedy. At times the plot gets a bit lost, but there is something intriguing about the story, some raw emotional appeal, that grabs you by the throat. It is a nice, albeit bumpy, trip back to the Camelot years on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s murder.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by New York City Center and the Women’s Project Theater; it is translated by Gitta Honegger. Sets: Marsha Ginsberg. Costumes: Susan Hilferty, Lighting: Brian H Scott, Sound: Jane Shaw. The play is directed by Tea Alagic  (through March 31)

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